While women won elected office at record levels in November 2018, two-thirds of Americans told Pew Research Center in June 2018 that it is easier for men than women to get elected to high political offices.1 Young Americans – aged 18-34 – were the most likely to identify a male advantage in elections, implying that the perceived challenges to women running for office are persistent across generations. These data are also consistent with findings within the past decade, including a 2014 study that found that three-quarters of respondents agree both that women still face discrimination in public life and that people hesitate to vote for women candidates.2 But does perception match reality? And did the 2018 election offer any evidence of either the durability or the destruction of gender and/or intersectional barriers to women’s electoral success? What does this mean for 2020 and beyond?
In the following section, we explain that:
The success of women in the 2018 elections did not fully upend the entrenched institutional norms and structures that have put women at an electoral disadvantage in the United States.
- Gender and intersectional biases persist in evaluations of women candidates, with implications for voters’ perceptions of candidate competency and capacity to serve.
- Prevailing biases mean that women running for office must continue to do additional work to achieve the same results as White men.
- The party and financial support infrastructures for women vary for Democrats and Republicans, as well as between White women and women of color.
- Women continue to face harassment and threats of violence, particularly those of a sexual nature, as a cost of candidacy.
- Gender biases persist in media coverage and commentary of U.S. campaigns, but the backlash to biased coverage has gained in volume, visibility, and influence over time. Still, mainstream coverage and commentary on political campaigns remain dominated by White men.
There are key points of progress evident prior to, during, and as a result of the 2018 election that are worth celebrating as we look ahead to the next election.
- Among Democrats, heightened voter support and enthusiasm for women candidates aligned with women winning their races at higher rates than men at nearly every level and phase of the 2018 elections. Similar levels of enthusiasm for women candidates are evident in 2020 election polls of Democratic voters.
- While sexism in the electorate contributed to President Trump’s success, research indicates that anti-sexist sentiment among voters hurt some Republican candidates in 2018.
- Many women candidates refused to wait to run for office in 2018. They pushed back against party norms and did not wait to be asked to run. They also challenged historical hurdles confronting young women and mothers of young children. Multiple women running in 2018 and 2020 pushed for state and federal campaign finance rules to permit the use of campaign funds for childcare.
- An historic number of women are running for president in 2020, capitalizing on the success of women in 2018 and continuing to challenge electoral norms and institutions that have advantaged White men.
Support for Women Candidates
Public support for women’s political representation has grown steadily over time, as Gallup shows in their polling; from 1975 to 2014, for example, the percent of Americans saying the country would be better governed with more women in elective office nearly doubled from 33% to 63%. In response to the same question in June 2018, 67% of registered voters told NBC/Wall Street Journal that the U.S. would be better off with more women in politics. In the same poll, one in four voters, including one in three women, said that they were especially “enthusiastic” about women candidates in 2018. Finally, 61% of Americans told Pew Research Center that it was a good thing that more women were running for office in 2018 than in the past.3
After decades of conducting her own research on gender and politics, Kathleen Dolan wrote in 2018, “Although the longstanding conventional wisdom has been that the fortunes of women candidates were hampered by public hostility to their candidacies and gendered stereotypes about their abilities, the public is now uniformly supportive of women’s place in politics.” But research from Dolan and others notes significant differences in support for women candidates – at least when asked in general terms – by respondent party and gender. Democrats are more likely to express a desire for greater gender balance in government than Republicans, and women are more supportive of gender parity among those in their respective parties, according to both academic studies and public opinion polls.4 Dolan and Michael Hansen find that those individuals who are more likely to blame systems versus blaming women for women’s underrepresentation – more women than men and more Democrats than Republicans – are also those more likely to want more women in office.5 Relatedly, research from Kira Sanbonmatsu on public desire to see more women in office – conducted in 2003 and again in 2018 – shows that those individuals who overestimate women’s level of congressional representation are less interested in seeing more women in Congress; those individuals are more likely to be Republican and male.6
But do these perceptions of gender disparity and its causes influence vote choice? Dolan and Hansen find little effect of blame attribution attitudes on voter behavior, at least in general election contests. Similarly, support for increasing gender parity generally is not the same as a gender preference in vote choice.7 For example, in PRRI’s 2018 poll, 60% of Americans see a benefit of greater gender balance in government, while just 17% say that they would prefer a woman candidate to a man. Notably, however, a smaller proportion of voters (11%) said they would prefer a man in the same poll.
Most research measuring support for women candidates does little to distinguish among women, especially in terms of race and ethnicity, which limits our knowledge about support for increasing representation for women of specific racial and ethnic groups. However, Kira Sanbonmatsu’s recent research offers evidence that support for women’s representation is conditional on race. Drawing upon data from the post-election survey 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), she finds the public is slightly less likely to report that they support electing more “women of color” to Congress than to say that they would like to see more “women” in Congress. Those individuals most likely to vary in support by officeholder race were less educated, White, and more likely to identify as Republicans.8
Research on minority linked fate, which Evelyn Simien defines as “an acute sense of awareness (or recognition) that what happens to the group will also affect the individual member,”9 also offers some insights into the influence of racial identity on candidate preference, but scholars of intersectionality and Black feminism have noted the distinct ways in which linked fate manifests itself among Black women and men.10 In a recent study applying an intersectional lens to minority linked fate among Blacks and Latinas/os, Sarah Allen Gershon, Celeste Montoya, Christina Bejarano, and Nadia Brown found similar levels of linked fate among Black and Latina/o men and women, but differences in the degree to which those attitudes informed perceptions of candidates’ ability to represent respondents’ interests; for example, they found some of the highest levels of minority linked fate among Black women, but these feelings were less influential in Black women’s perceptions of candidates’ representational promise than they were in perceptions by other race/gender groups.11 Another study found that shared ethnoracial and gender identity was predictive of support for Black women candidates from Black women voters, but had no significant effect among White women and Latinas.12 This research reinforces the importance of curbing assumptions that shared identity (whether racial, gender, or both) predicts support for political candidates, especially when certain identities – such as race over gender for White women – grant groups greater privilege.13
As we look to 2020, one recent national survey indicates that Democratic voters actually prefer a woman over a man and a person of color over a White candidate in the presidential election.14 Importantly, however, these assessments were done between pairs of otherwise identical and hypothetical presidential candidates, not the Democratic candidates currently running for their party’s nomination. Beyond their preference, though, voters’ enthusiasm for candidates might also be boosted with a woman on the ballot. A June 2019 AP-NORC poll found that 40% of registered Democratic voters said that a woman presidential candidate would make them more excited to vote for that candidate, while only 10% said the same about a man. That excitement for a woman candidate is especially high among women, more liberal, and younger Democrats.
When voters were asked in an August 2019 The Economist/YouGov poll about the ideal number of women in elected offices generally, nearly two-thirds said that either parity or having more women than men would be best (with 30% of voters not sure); 81% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans preferred 50% or more women in elected offices. The same poll pointed to some particular advantages for women candidates as we head into election 2020. About one-quarter of voters reported that elected women are better than men at maintaining a tone of civility and respect, working out compromises, creating safe and respectful workplaces, serving as role models for children, and being honest and ethical. A plurality of voters also believe elected women are more compassionate and empathetic than men. There remain areas where men are perceived as better-suited to lead, such as on national security or defense, but these data indicate that support for women candidates is not simply rooted in a desire for parity, but also in perceptions that women bring particular assets to political leadership and officeholding.
Gender as an Electoral Asset
The enthusiasm surrounding women’s candidacies in 2018 and 2020, especially among Democrats and women, indicates that gender need not only be considered a hurdle for women candidates in elections; it can also serve as an electoral asset. A blunt measure of women’s potential political advantage in 2018 is their rate of winning compared to similarly-situated men. Non-incumbent women outperformed men across levels of office in both primary and general election contests. Democratic women fared best, especially in the general election, and were responsible for the majority of House, Senate, gubernatorial, and statewide executive seats that flipped from red to blue in 2018 elections.
While Republican women fared better in their primaries than men, they made up a much smaller proportion of candidates overall and within their party. And unlike the Democratic women who gained seats for their party, Republican women saw net losses at nearly every level of office as a result of election 2018. Recently published research from Danielle Thomsen looks at these partisan trends in U.S. House primary and general election results over time (1980-2012), finding, “Republican women face a much more difficult electoral context than Democratic women: they are less likely to be incumbents, they have more primary competition, and they run in less favorable partisan environments.”15 This aligns with previous research from Barbara Palmer and Dennis Simon on the characteristics of “women-friendly” congressional districts (1970-2000), wherein they found that districts most friendly to Republican women in general elections were least friendly to Republican women in primaries.16 Together, these findings illuminate the very different electoral terrain that Democratic and Republican women navigate.
Women candidates’ experiences and outcomes also differ by race. A review of women candidates’ general election win rates at the state legislative level from 2012 to 2014 found that women of color fared better than their White women counterparts in both competitive and non-competitive seats, despite emerging as nominees less often than White women in majority-White districts.17 In 2018 U.S. House contests, 5 of 13 (38.5%) women of color elected for the first time won in majority-White districts, demonstrating their capacity for success outside of the majority-minority districts in which their congressional representation has been most concentrated.18
Non-incumbent Democratic women of color won at higher rates than Democratic White women candidates in general election contests, but not in primary elections. Non-incumbent Republican women of color candidates (who were much smaller in number) fared slightly better than White Republican women in primary contests, but no new Republican women of color were elected to Congress in 2018. In addition, the only Black Republican woman ever elected to the U.S. House – Mia Love (R-UT) – was defeated by a Democrat in election 2018.
Women of color were also highly underrepresented in the candidate pool for the U.S. Senate. And of the 11 (8D, 3R) non-incumbent women of color who ran for the U.S. Senate, none made it through to the general election.
Isolating a distinct gender or intersectional advantage (or disadvantage) in vote choice to women candidates is difficult, especially in general election contests where party is the primary predictor of voter behavior. Though more rigorous tests of what contributed to candidate success in 2018 congressional elections are needed, these raw data show that, especially among Democratic women, women appeared unencumbered by explicit gender bias at the ballot box.
Mobilization and Inspiration
The potential advantages of more women on the ballot are not limited to electoral victory. Previous research finds that the presence of women candidates can enhance women’s political engagement in the electorate.19 Women voters did turn out at higher rates than men in 2018, as they have in every election since 1980, and they also increased their turnout from 2014 to 2018 by a slightly higher amount than men. These data do not prove that women’s presence as candidates increased women’s turnout – in fact, the same factors that increased women’s candidacies may have also enhanced their likelihood of voting, but some polling on the heightened enthusiasm of women voters about women candidates indicates the potentially beneficial effect on voter engagement of having more women on the ballot in 2018. Even more, the symbolic effects of seeing more women running for and winning elected office could be lasting, according to research that shows the benefits of exposing young people to political women.20
The benefits of being a woman candidate are not only evident in the numbers. Women candidates are also embracing gender as an electoral asset in how they make their case to voters. Already, 2020 women candidates are adopting strategies that leverage their gender identities and experiences to distinguish them from their opponents. In addition to the examples noted above for women presidential contenders, early ads from women congressional candidates like Nancy Mace (R-SC) and Kim Olson (D-TX) are illustrative. In what promises to be a competitive contest in South Carolina’s first congressional district, State Representative Nancy Mace introduces herself as the first woman to graduate from The Citadel and promises a “new voice” in Washington, DC. Democrat Kim Olson also touts her history of blazing trails for women in the Air Force in her first campaign ad, as well as her work to address sexual misconduct in the military and to support women veterans, as preparing her for the “battle” she will face to make change as the representative from Texas’ 24th congressional district. While much attention has been paid to the benefits for women veterans in proving their toughness for elected office, these women have also demonstrated how their distinct experiences as women veterans have prepared them to disrupt male and masculine-dominated political institutions.
Gender and Intersectional Effects on Candidate Evaluation
An extensive literature illuminates the congruity between expectations for officeholders and the traits and expertise most associated with men.21 As Alice Eagly and Steven Karau write, “In thinking about female leaders, people would combine their largely divergent expectations about leaders and women, whereas in thinking about male leaders, people would combine highly redundant expectations.”22 This is especially true in perceptions of executive political offices, which are most aligned with masculinity.23
Some research in the past decade has suggested that the divergence between voter perceptions of women and their expectations of political leadership has lessened,24 but gender stereotypes continue to shape voter expectations and evaluations of candidates.25 For example, a Georgetown analysis of General Social Survey data shows that the proportion of Americans viewing men as better emotionally suited for politics than women has declined from nearly 50% in 1975 to 13% in 2018, but that bias has not fully subsided.26 As Cecilia Mo finds, gender attitudes have “grown subtler,” but “remain consequential” in the electoral process.27
The exact consequences of stereotypical beliefs in electoral politics are debated, as Kathleen Dolan finds “no evidence of any direct, consistent, or substantial impact” of gender stereotypes on evaluations of, or voting for, women candidates.28 She concludes, along with others, that partisanship overwhelms gender in real-world campaigns, even if gendered attitudes among voters persist.29 But consequences of stereotypical beliefs are not only manifested at the ballot box. Bias in perceptions of gender and/or candidacy influences how voters evaluate candidates throughout the campaign process as well as the work that campaigns do to ensure that gender is not a detriment on Election Day. For example, some research shows that voters continue to seek out more information about women candidates’ competence and qualifications, placing an additional burden on women to prove themselves as capable.30 Women candidates are also vulnerable to harsher punishment for perceived incivility or scandal, increasing the pressure on them to be better than men while also creating opportunities for opponents’ attacks to have greater impact.31
The dearth of intersectional research persists in literature that evaluates the role of gender stereotypes in candidate evaluation. As Sarah Allen Gershon and Jessica Lavariega Monforti write, existing scholarship on gender and racial stereotypes of candidates “overwhelmingly focuses on only female or on one racial group,” adding, “There is a limited amount of work that focuses on co-racial candidates and voters.”32 This research gap stunts our understanding of how these dynamics affect Black, Latina, Native, Asian, and multiracial women candidates. It also makes it difficult to test prevailing theories about how women of color fare in electoral politics. Some previous research has emphasized the “double disadvantage” or “multiple marginality” that women of color confront as candidates,33 but more recent studies have described distinct advantages that may accrue to minority women candidates.34
Evidence reveals that women of color experience both advantages and disadvantages. The intersectional effects of gender and race on candidate evaluation and vote choice vary, both within and between groups.35 Among Latinas specifically, some research shows the potential for an electoral “Latina advantage” against Latino and White male candidates, while other findings indicate Latinas are rated lower than their potential male and female opponents on perceived experience, competency, intelligence, and strong leadership.36 In other studies, Latina candidates faced a disadvantage even on stereotypically feminine traits like compassion and warmth compared to their Latino male counterparts.37
The limited research on evaluations of Black women candidates has also found variation in ratings of perceived issue competencies, with Black women viewed as less competent than opponents on the economy and security, for example, and more competent than opponents on welfare or civil rights.38 Investigating the potentially detrimental effects of the “angry Black woman” trope, one recent study finds some negative effects on evaluations of and likely votes for Black women candidates portrayed as particularly assertive.39 Research on Black women candidates has also identified distinct experiences and evaluations confronting Black women of different skin tones and hair texture, further demonstrating the need for more intersectional and nuanced examinations of voter bias.40 Attention to the distinct electoral terrain to be traversed by women with different racial and ethnic identities is especially crucial as the number of women of color candidates increases and we watch two women of color compete for the presidency in 2020.
The consequences of sexism were real in the 2016 election. Multiple studies found that sexist attitudes were among the significant predictors of voting for President Donald Trump in both the primary and general election.41 While sexism did not predict vote choice at the congressional level in 2016, findings from the 2018 midterms show that anti-sexist beliefs were especially influential in casting ballots for U.S. House candidates. Republican House candidates “paid a price for their party’s sexism in 2018,” according to Brian Schaffner, losing support among voters with the least sexist attitudes.42
In recent research, Tessa Ditonto finds that participants in an experiment who hold more sexist beliefs are less likely to search for information about women candidates and less likely to rate them positively or vote for them, even when their policy preferences most closely align with the woman candidate.43 This raises an important question, however, about just how much of the population holds high levels of sexist beliefs. Using average scores from a hostile sexism scale included on a 2018 nationally representative survey, Brian Schaffner notes that about 7% of Americans can be characterized as very sexist (consistently high levels of agreement with sexist statements), 14% of Americans can be characterized as non-sexist (consistently low levels of agreement with sexist statements), and the remainder of Americans fall somewhere in between. These data indicate that while the most negative effects of sexist beliefs may be concentrated among a small portion of the electorate, they are not inconsequential.
While Schaffner does not find an interaction between sexist attitudes and candidate gender in predicting vote choice in 2018, he and Samantha Luks do find that likely 2020 Democratic primary voters reporting higher levels of sexism were less likely to report women candidates as their top choice for the presidential nomination in the fall of 2018.44 Though sexist attitudes might not directly depress support for women candidates when party differences are at play, these findings suggest the potential influence of sexist attitudes when candidate party is held constant and prove that neither party is immune from sexism’s effects. Women running in the 2020 presidential primary will have to clear this additional hurdle in their path to the Democratic nomination.
Doing More Work
Research shows that “gender neutral” outcomes at the ballot box are not the result of gender neutrality in campaigns. Instead, gender shapes who runs, how they run, and how voters respond to them. For women, waging a campaign for elected office often entails doing additional work to ensure that gender bias does not impede their electoral success.45 It has also meant being better than their male counterparts. Multiple studies have shown that women candidates are, on average, of higher quality, than their male peers, and that this “gendered quality gap” helps to explain gender parity in election results.46 In an analysis of U.S. House candidates in the decade before the 2018 election, Sarah Fulton and Kostanca Dhima find that Democratic women candidates’ quality advantage over their male counterparts explains their equal (or greater) support among voters. They describe this “performance premium” placed on women candidates as a persistent, and too easily overlooked, cost of running for women candidates.47 Other research has confirmed that women who compete against men of equal quality might face an electoral disadvantage due to the persistence of this premium.48
Some evidence from 2018 contests show that women candidates continued to compete with a quality advantage. In an analysis of Democratic primary candidates for U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and governor, Meredith Conroy, Mai Nguyen, and Nathaniel Rakich found women candidates, especially those running for governor or senator, were more likely than men to have previous experience as elected officials.49 Reporting their findings for FiveThirtyEight, they noted that – as of August 2018 – 56% of Democratic women gubernatorial candidates had previous elected office experience, compared to 37% of men running for governor. Among Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate, they found a 58 percentage-point gap between men and women who had experience in elected office; 80% of Democratic women versus 22% of Democratic men running for the U.S. Senate previously held elected office.50 Without discounting the influence of this experience advantage on women candidates’ primary success, they find that Democratic women outperformed their male counterparts even when accounting for previous experience.
Previous research has found another way that the work required of women candidates to win primary elections is greater than that required of men: women draw more challengers at the primary stage, placing an additional hurdle in their path to nomination and electoral success.51 In demonstrating that women faced greater primary competition in U.S. House elections from 1958-2004, Jennifer Lawless and Kathryn Pearson conclude that women have “to be better than men to fare equally well.”52
While Republican and Democratic women – incumbents and non-incumbents – won at higher rates than their male counterparts in U.S. House primaries in 2018, some did face opposition that was related to gender. In Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, incumbent Representative Martha Roby (R) faced four primary opponents and was forced into a runoff election to secure the Republican nomination. Roby’s primary opponents tried to paint her as disloyal to President Trump, pointing out her call for Trump to leave the presidential race after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which he joked about sexually assaulting women. In a May 2018 attack ad against Roby, run-off opponent Bobby Bright claimed, “Roby turned her back on the president when he needed her most.” While she survived the challenge and went on to win re-election, Roby – one of the youngest Republican women in Congress – has already announced that she will not be running for re-election in 2020.
When CAWP scholars interviewed 83 women in the 114th Congress, we heard repeatedly that the challenges of campaigning for and winning office were greater than the challenges they faced once in office.53 While congresswomen noted that they continue to be held to higher standards than their male counterparts after being elected, their emphasis on the heightened hurdles on the campaign trail reinforces research findings that women candidates face – but also overcome – greater scrutiny than men en route to electoral success. That scrutiny is not limited to their capacity to do the job, but also their capacity to win. Especially for women campaigning to be the first in an elected office, they must run two campaigns at once. In addition to convincing voters that they are the best person for the job, they must allocate time, energy, and resources to combat skepticism that voters will back someone who does not fit the White male norm.
Already, women presidential candidates in 2020 have been asked to prove that their electoral success is possible, especially after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat. Elizabeth Warren has been asked what she will do to prevent being “Hillary-ed” (her response: “One might say you persist”) and Kamala Harris has spent time responding to questions about her electability as a Black woman. Asked how she deals with the doubters, Harris told the Associated Press, “You win…you win.” On the campaign trail, she has taken on the question of electability head on, telling audiences, “I have faith in the American people to know we will never be burdened by assumptions of who can do what based on who historically has done it.”
Political parties play influential roles in candidate emergence and the campaign process. From candidate recruitment and endorsements to strategic and financial support, parties can significantly affect candidates’ likelihood of electoral success. Previous research has shown that parties can act as gatekeepers to women candidates, especially when dominated by male party leaders who question women’s electability.54 But parties are also more influential in women’s decisions to become candidates than they are in men’s decision-making process, indicating that any gender bias among party leaders can come at an even greater cost to women’s likelihood of running.55 In contrast, party intervention to promote women’s inclusion and advancement can yield significant benefits.56
A spring 2016 survey of local party chairs found no evidence that they viewed women candidates as less likely than men to win, though the authors suggest caution about interpreting the results as gender neutral.57 Citing research on gender differences in candidate quality, they note that if party chairs assume women candidates will outmatch men in experience and qualifications, they may be more positive in their evaluations of women’s capacity to win. The same study found that local party chairs rated Black and Latina/o candidates as less likely to win than their White counterparts, though they do not find an intersectional effect for Black women or Latina candidates.58 This finding indicates that the forces of party gatekeeping function differently for women and men across different racial and ethnic groups.
There are also differences in party support for Democratic and Republican women candidates that are especially notable in considering the party disparity in women’s success in election 2018. Extensive research has shown that the support infrastructure available to Republican women considering or pursuing candidacy is less robust than on the Democratic side.59 Democratic women, and particularly White Democratic women, have benefitted not only from the growth in targeted recruitment, training, and financial backing to progressive women candidates, but these efforts have also appeared to influence party recruitment and support. Especially when outside groups like EMILY’s List invest close to $10 million in backing women candidates, the Democratic Party has an incentive to encourage more women to run.60
The Democratic Party has also seen greater representation of women in party recruitment positions. Since 2012, a Democratic woman has served as either recruitment chair, vice chair, or co-chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Two Black congresswomen have served in this role in the past decade, with former Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) chairing the recruitment effort in the 2014 cycle and current Representative Val Demings (D-FL) serving as a DCCC recruitment co-chair in the 2020 cycle. Democratic congresswomen have also led “Women LEAD,” a DCCC initiative to support Democratic women candidates in competitive districts, since it launched in 2013. In the same period, women have been two of five chairs of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC), which leads candidate recruitment efforts for the U.S. Senate; Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV) leads the DSCC in the 2020 cycle and is the first woman of color to take on this role.
Despite the increase in women’s representation and power within Democratic Party’s campaign arms, the 2018 election witnessed many progressive women candidates who ran – including some who won – without party backing. Progressive groups like Justice Democrats, Brand New Democrats, and Run for Something, among others, served as alternatives to party organizations in recruiting, training, and supporting Democratic candidates in the 2018 cycle, many with a commitment to backing women and minority candidates. Women of color also had to continue to push the Democratic Party to better prioritize diversity and inclusion in the 2018 cycle. In a 2017 letter to Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tom Perez, more than two dozen prominent Black women activists, elected officials, and community leaders called on the party to not take Black women’s support for granted, writing, “Organizing without the engagement of Black women will prove to be a losing strategy, and there is much too much at stake for the Democratic Party to ignore Black women.”61 In April 2019, Perez announced the addition of three women of color to his leadership team as the DNC heads into the 2020 election cycle.62
Former Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) was the only and last woman to lead the Republicans’ Senate campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which she did in the 2006 cycle. In 2018, Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) served as the first woman to lead the recruitment effort for the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) and made a commitment to recruit more women to run.63 While she touted more success in recruiting Republican women than in past cycles, the number of Republican women who filed to run for the U.S. House was not record-breaking and fell far short of their Democratic women counterparts. There are many reasons why these numbers remained low despite Stefanik’s efforts, including resistance she might have faced from other Republican Party leaders. After the 2018 election, for example, Stefanik argued that her party needed to do better in recruiting women and advocated investing in women candidates at the primary stage to bolster their chances of success. Tom Emmer, the incoming chair of the NRCC responded by telling Roll Call, “If that’s what Elise wants to do, then that’s her call, her right…But I think that’s a mistake.” While he later clarified that it would be a mistake for the NRCC to get involved in primaries, this attitude is a hurdle to more targeted efforts within the party to address the severe underrepresentation of Republican women as candidates and officeholders.
Despite Emmer’s comments in 2018, he tapped another woman with a commitment to women’s representation – Representative Susan Brooks (R-IN) – as the NRCC’s recruitment chair for the 2020 cycle. Brooks has told media that her party leadership “can demonstrate to people that the women in our conference are being given really big responsibility.” Brooks’ summer 2019 announcement that she would not be running for re-election, however, might be less encouraging to potential women recruits.64 Decisions by Representatives Brooks and Roby not to run for re-election in 2020 mean that only 11 Republican women incumbents remain in the pool to defend their seats in the next election as of September 2019. As Politico noted, there are more men named Jim in the U.S. House than there are Republican women running for re-election in 2020.65 To make up for this dearth of Republican women incumbents, extra-party organizations like Winning for Women and VIEW PAC, as well as Stefanik’s leadership PAC, E-PAC, are working to recruit and support Republican women candidates earlier in the 2020 cycle.66 As the primary season takes shape, the Republican Party’s support (or lack of support) for these recruits will serve as one indicator of whether the party serves as a gateway or gatekeeper to women’s candidacy and officeholding.
Waiting (or Not) to Run
The disproportionate caregiving burden borne by women has been shown to delay their entry into the political sphere as candidates and officeholders.67 Some recent research suggests that familial responsibilities are no longer a hurdle to candidacy for women, and the presence of mothers of young children as candidates in 2018 offers some anecdotal support for that claim.68 According to CAWP, more than half of women with children under age 18 in the 116th Congress were elected for the first time in 2018. But the presence of mothers of young children does not mean that caregiving concerns did not affect women candidates differently than men. Recent research has identified the preference for candidates who are married with children as contributing to a “double bind” for women, for whom those roles mean greater labor than men.69 CAWP research has also found that women’s decisions to run for office are more relationally-embedded than men’s decisions to become candidates, and that includes accounting for the effects of candidacy on those who rely on them for primary care.70
In new research, Julie Dolan, Paru Shah, and Semilla Stripp find some evidence that women candidates’ caregiving responsibilities still weighed heavily in their decisions to run for congressional office in 2018, even if they were not prohibitive in candidate calculations. Some women noted their concerns about the time demands of being both candidates and caregivers. There are also financial costs to running for office as a caregiver. New York congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley (D-NY) felt these costs first-hand, as a mother of both two- and four-year-olds. In the 2018 election, she became the first woman candidate to spend campaign funds on childcare after petitioning the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for permission. Their advisory decision, which aligned with a previous decision in favor of a male candidates’ childcare expenses, had important implications for other women concerned about the caregiving costs they will incur if they become candidates for federal office.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics tracking, 14 states allowed the use of campaign funds in state-level races for childcare as of October 2019. Shirley’s 2018 campaign efforts to push for campaign rules that are more family-friendly at the federal level coincided with – and may have even inspired – other women’s efforts to petition for similar permissions from state campaign finance bodies. Just a month after the FEC ruling in Shirley’s case, for example, the Wisconsin State Ethics Commission ruled favorably on a request made by state treasurer candidate Cynthia Kaump, establishing that candidates may use campaign funds to pay for childcare directly related to campaign activity. A month later, the Arkansas Ethics Commission voted unanimously to allow campaign funds to be used for childcare expenses for state house candidate Gayatri Agnew. Other advisory opinions on this type of expense were issued during and after 2018, with some ruling against permission to cover childcare costs with campaign funds. More durable policy change would come through statute instead of through case-by-case decisions. As of August 2019, only four states have enshrined the practice of using campaign funds for child care costs into law, all since 2018, and other states have bills pending.
Apart from raising attention to campaign finance rules, Liuba Grechen Shirley has also continued her own advocacy to increase the number of mothers with young children in elected office. In 2019, she founded Vote Mama, a political action committee to provide financial support to Democratic women candidates to combat the “motherhood penalty” in political campaigns. In July 2019, Vote Mama advisory committee member and congressional candidate MJ Hegar (D-TX) successfully appealed to the FEC to further expand the types of childcare that could be covered with campaign funds. These decisions make it easier for parents – women or men – to afford a congressional campaign, but they are just one step toward making political campaigns and institutions more accommodating to caregivers.
While caregiving concerns are real for many women considering candidacy, candidates can also be motivated by their experiences as mothers or parents of young children. In 2018, many women candidates spoke publicly about how being mothers motivated them to run and to make policy change. Kelda Roys’ (D-WI) first campaign video in her bid to become Governor of Wisconsin earned national attention for what she was doing in the ad: breastfeeding her daughter. But what was perhaps more telling was what she said in the ad. Roys described how being a mother informed her policy perspective and priorities, leveraging her motherhood as a credential for office instead of a barrier to officeholding. In her campaign to become Attorney General of New York, pregnant candidate Zephyr Teachout (D-NY) released an ad in which she received an ultrasound. Paired with a visual of her black-and-white sonogram, Teachout mused about her unborn child, “What does his or her future look like? Do we save our democracy?” She tweeted out the ad with this message: “Being a parent and being in power shouldn’t be in conflict for a woman any more than they are for a man.”
It was not only mothers of young (or unborn) children that made history in the 2018 election. Two candidates became the youngest women ever elected to Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Abby Finkenauer (D-IA) were both elected at 29.71 Prior to their election, Elise Stefanik (R-NY) had been the youngest woman elected to Congress at 30. These women, among others, are part of a new generation of women candidates and officeholders who are not waiting to run or serve until after raising children. They are also not “waiting their turn” to run, challenging party leaders and party incumbents who might discourage their candidacies or discount their ability to win.
Both the ability and willingness of younger women, including women with young children, to run for office has implications for the long-term advancement and more robust and diverse representation of women in American politics. The 2018 election offered some evidence of the expansion of the pool of women candidates in these ways, but further inclusion will require additional efforts to address gender disparities in caregiving, the incompatibility of caregiving with candidacy, and the dearth of recruitment efforts and networks for young women.
Parenthood and the Presidency
The work that women candidates did in 2018 to reduce the constraining effects of caregiving on campaigning and to challenge other factors that have delayed women’s candidacies will matter for women running for office in 2020 and beyond. But the different expectations for women and men persist, especially when running for high-level office. Of the 26 Democrats who announced bids for the presidency in 2020, 10 had children under age 18 when they entered the race.72 The only woman presidential candidate with school-age children was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), whose sons were 10 and 15 in 2019. Perhaps more notably, two male candidates announced their bids for the presidency with children younger than one year old; both Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA) had children in late 2018. Despite the progress for women candidates running with young children at lower levels of office, the idea that a mother of a newborn could run for President with the same dearth of criticism that Moulton and Swalwell faced seems implausible. The closest test to this question came in 2008, when vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin faced scrutiny and criticism for running shortly after giving birth to a son.73
However, there are some indicators of progress in the 2020 campaign. First, major news outlets like The New York Times and Vox have investigated male presidential candidates’ caregiving roles and responsibilities, cuing the men to speak more candidly about the share of the burden that they bear. And while most of the women running in 2020 either have adult children or have no children, they have drawn from their primary caregiving roles to make the case for their presidential bids. For example, one of the most common stories that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) shares on the campaign trail is about how her Aunt Bee stepped in to help her juggle her work and caring for a newborn daughter. Likewise, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) frequently references the painful experience of being forced to leave her ill newborn daughter behind in the hospital as spurring her to first get involved in public policy as an advocate for requiring insurers to pay for longer hospital stays for new mothers. Parenthood still plays out differently for men and women in and out of political campaigns and across levels of office, but progress is evident when caregiving experience is valued and the need to manage caregiving responsibilities is acknowledged for both the men and women who run.
Violence And Harassment
As women calculate the potential costs of running for office, they are also aware of exposing themselves and those they love to risk of harassment and/or violence. While much of the research evaluating violence against women in politics has been conducted outside of the United States,74 U.S. women candidates are not immune from heightened threats, though these experiences have been less systematically documented.75 Findings from a 2017 survey of U.S. mayors conducted by six political scientists show that women experience greater physical violence and psychological abuse than their male counterparts as both candidates and officeholders.76 The authors were unable to analyze racial differences in experience of abuse or violence due to the small numbers of mayors of color in their study.
The availability of social media and online forums to attack candidates has heightened the volume of abuse experienced by women and men who run for political office, but even there, the attacks on women are more likely to threaten sexual violence and rely on misogynist tropes. Unfortunately, those attacks do not cease once women enter political office, and attacks by fellow politicians – including the President of the United States – can further stoke harassment and incite threats of violence against women officeholders.77 While some women politicians understand this backlash as a cost of disrupting the status quo and say it has not pushed them out of politics,78 the potentially detrimental effects of this abuse go beyond the risks to individual candidates and officeholders. When women weigh the costs and benefits of running for office in the first place, the risk of harassment and violence is among their considerations and could have a deterring effect on their likelihood to become a candidate.
There are also electoral and financial costs to these types of harassment and threats. Candidates exposed to them have to adapt strategies to reduce risk while campaigning, employ security if the threats are deemed significant enough, and dedicate resources from the campaign to monitoring threats. While not discussed or researched in great depth to date in the U.S., the combined psychological, physical, operational, and financial burdens of violence and harassment toward women candidates, especially racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ candidates, unfairly increase the costs of running for political office.79
Exposure to threats and harassment is especially high for women running for the highest office in American politics. One analysis of women running for president in 2016 showed that Hillary Clinton was the target of twice as many abusive tweets as was Bernie Sanders, her Democratic primary opponent; the most common term used in those tweets was “bitch.” The same study by the firm Max Kelsen found that “bitch” was also the most commonly used term in Twitter attacks on Carly Fiorina, a Republican primary candidate, and noted that tweets against Fiorina were especially sexually-charged and often focused on her gender.
More research is needed to better understand the volume and types of threats faced by women candidates and officeholders with attention to differences by race, party, and level of office. But the 2018 election offered at least anecdotal evidence that the abuse faced by women candidates abroad and women officeholders globally was also felt by women candidates running below the presidential level in the U.S. The New York Times reporter Maggie Astor spoke to women candidates running in different states and for different offices in election 2018 and detailed the types of abuse they faced, noting the particularly sexualized forms of harassment they experienced in person and online. Kim Weaver (D-IA04) a challenger to Representative Steve King (R-IA04), told Astor that she dropped out of the race after a series of threats. Most of the other women Astor spoke with were undeterred by the abuse they felt, in part because it was not new to them. Mya Whitaker, a city council candidate in Oakland, California, told Astor, “It becomes so normalized, the types of things that people say,” adding, “Being a Black woman and existing, in some cases, is enough to piss people off.”
Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist, the first transgender woman nominee for governor in the U.S., also faced online abuse, harassment, and a death threats over the course of her 2018 candidacy. As a trailblazing candidate, she expected the vitriol – much of it transphobic in nature – and did not back down, but her campaign did have to adapt, being more conscious of candidate safety and less public about when and where Hallquist was holding campaign events. While these realities might not deter candidates in a single election, sustained threats can have a detrimental effect on women’s willingness to run for and serve in elected office. For example, in August 2018, Vermont State Representative Kiah Morris (D) – Vermont’s only Black woman lawmaker at the time – dropped her bid for a third term in the state legislature after two years of harassment. Targeted specifically with racist attacks, Morris resigned from office in September 2018.
When a man grabbed Senator Kamala Harris’ microphone at a June 2019 presidential forum, it is no wonder that the outrage was swift and strong; while Harris quickly assured the audience she was “all good,” the histories of men invading women’s spaces, violence against women, and heightened vulnerability of women of color made cued observers to emphasize what this incident reflected about gender, race, and physical displays of power.
The concern about women presidential candidates’ safety and well-being in 2020 will be heightened due to the visibility and high stakes of the race. But threats to and harassment of women candidates and officeholders remain a problem in need of addressing across levels of office and with greater attention to the dangers fomented online.
Leveling the Funding Field
There has long been a perception among candidates, practitioners, and some scholars that campaign fundraising poses a more significant challenge for women candidates than for men, in part because women often lack the personal and professional networks that benefit men’s political advancement.80 This perception persists among women candidates, who believe that fundraising is harder for them than for their male counterparts.81 But analyses also show that women candidates can and do raise as much money as men in comparable races.82 In fact, some research has found that women have a fundraising advantage in some contests or in some measures of campaign finance, such as individual donations.83
However, equitable campaign receipts may mask the unique difficulties women face to achieve that equity. Women raise money in smaller amounts, which means they must cultivate higher numbers of smaller individual contributions to reach aggregate totals comparable to men.84 And while women’s donor networks and PACs have also helped to close fundraising gaps between men and women candidates, they primarily benefit Democratic women.85 Relatedly, recent research has found that partisan donor pools are friendlier to the emergence of liberal Democratic women than Republican women, in part because female Democratic donors exhibit a gender affinity effect in their support of women candidates.86
Gender parity in campaign receipts and expenditures also does not always translate into equal chances of electoral success. Previous research has found differential returns to women candidates on their campaign investments, indicating women may actually require greater amounts of campaign funding in order to achieve levels of success comparable to their male counterparts.87 Regardless of why women may receive a smaller “bang for their buck” in campaigns, these findings urge caution against assuming that fundraising or electoral barriers for women candidates disappear when they raise and spend the same amounts as men.
Most of these studies have investigated gender parity in fundraising without attention to differences by candidate race, but the limited intersectional evidence shows how the financial hurdles might be higher for women of color candidates. CAWP’s study of state legislators finds that women of color were more likely than White women to view fundraising as harder for women than men.88 In an evaluation of congressional campaign receipts between 2000 and 2016, Ashley Sorensen and Philip Chen find that while race and gender alone do not appear to work to candidates’ fundraising disadvantage, the interaction of race and gender serve to depress campaign receipts for women of color candidates running as challengers or incumbents. They also find that funding disparities affect candidates’ vote share, reinforcing the electoral disadvantage to women of color.89
Looking specifically at party donor support for congressional primary candidates from 2010 to 2014, Hans Hassell and Neil Visalvanich find little evidence of gender or racial bias at the primary stage. However, they find that the Democratic advantage to White women candidates is not replicated for women of color.90 The authors note that study does not account for differences in candidate quality, suggesting that what appears as party agnosticism in support of women and minorities might mask a reality where party donors are supporting women and minorities at equal levels to less qualified men.91
The Center for Responsive Politics’ (CRP) analysis of 2018 campaign finance reveals similar disparities in fundraising among women candidates by race. While their study of total direct fundraising by U.S. House general election candidates shows that women actually outperformed men, they find that Black women candidates raised the least amount across all race and gender subgroups.92 This disadvantage to Black women candidates was particularly significant in money raised from large individual donors in 2018. And while Black women in Congress serve, on average, in less competitive districts where fundraising and spending might be lower, the intersectional effects on large individual donations hold when district-level characteristics are taken into account.93
CRP’s report suggests that women House candidates’ fundraising advantage in the 2018 election can be explained, at least in part, by the rise in the number of women donors and their concentration of support for Democratic women candidates. They find that 40% of White women candidates’ donations came from women in 2018, while just 29% of White men’s donations were from women donors. This gender gap in attracting women donors persists for Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and Asian-American women versus men.94 Party allegiance explains some, but not all of these differences, as women donors were still a larger proportion of donors to women Democratic nominees than to Democratic men who ran for the House in 2018.95 Finally, all of the 25 general election House candidates who received 50% or more of their total direct contributions from women donors in 2018 were Democratic women.96 These data suggest that the fundraising success of women candidates in 2018 relied more heavily on women donors than in elections past, and that the increase in women donors in the 2018 cycle was a particular boon to Democratic women.
Jacob Grumbach, Alexander Sahn, and Sarah Staszak also look at the independent and intersectional effects of race and gender in congressional donations from 1980 to 2010, focusing more specifically on the positive effects of shared gender and ethnoracial identities between donors and candidates.97 They find that women candidates and candidates of color earn more contributions from women donors and donors of color, though the effects of shared ethnoracial identity are greater than those of gender. When evaluating gender and race in combination, the researchers find much more modest effects, but do note that Democratic White women candidates receive more financial support from women of all racial groups compared to White men.
Signs of similar reliance on women donors by women presidential candidates was evident through the second quarter of 2019. In an analysis by CRP, women donors made up 50% or more of donors to four of six women presidential candidates (Gillibrand, Harris, Warren, and Williamson); Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro were the only men to match that level of women donor support. The same analysis showed that there are simply more women making political donations in 2020 than in previous cycles, which may yield particular benefits for women candidates.98
“Megadonors,” or those investing millions of dollars to super PACs, outside groups, and candidates, play some of the most pivotal roles in shaping the financial landscape of political campaigns. As of August 2019, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) received the second-most campaign funds from the top 100 donors in the cycle thus far; former candidate Jay Inslee (D-WA) came in first. As the Democratic field narrows, these investments will become greater and potentially more influential on candidates’ campaign performance.
Financial investment from EMILY’s List, the organization committed to electing pro-choice Democratic women, will continue to play a key role in leveling the funding field for women candidates in 2020. And though they have yet to come anywhere near EMILY’s List’s level of spending in previous cycles, Republican organizations like Winning for Women and VIEW PAC are working to build an equally robust finance infrastructure to support GOP women.99
In looking ahead to future elections, the influence of gender in fundraising should be assessed from both the perspective of candidates and donors. Moreover, gender parity – or even women’s advantage – in campaign receipts should be evaluated with attention to not only the differences in financial support to diverse groups of women (race and party), but also the differences in work required to achieve funding parity and the “bang for buck” among women and men candidates.
Media as Help or Hindrance
Media act as a filter through which the public observes and understands politics and elections. The diversity of media – types, sources, styles, and reach – makes conclusions about its effects on political candidates and institutions difficult to discern in any generalizable way. Instead, research affirms that media can play a role in feeding or combatting gender and intersectional biases, but the degree to which they do either has varied based on which media were evaluated, when, and at what level of office studies were conducted.
Some recent research concludes that women congressional candidates do not face disparities in the level or type of media coverage they garner on the campaign trail.100 However, this is contrary to decades of research finding that women candidates often receive less substantive coverage; more coverage of personal attributes, relationships, and appearance; and more coverage of their viability and electoral chances than men.101 The variance in these findings can be explained in part by differences in research methodology and design, as well as which women are included in the study.
Research on women of color running for and serving in Congress reveals particular intersectional biases in media coverage.102 Additionally, most scholars agree that women running for high-level offices like the presidency are the most vulnerable to gendered, including sexist, treatment by media. Evidence from 2008 and 2016 confirms this finding that presidential media coverage is not gender-neutral.103 And while still early in the cycle, some research on media bias in 2020 has already flagged differences in both the quantity and quality of coverage received by women and men running for president.104 The prominent presidential candidacies of women of color in 2020 also reaffirm the importance of applying an intersectional lens to analyses of media coverage in the upcoming elections. Already, analyses cuing intersectional tropes targeting presidential candidate Kamala Harris – just the third Black woman to ever pursue a major party presidential nomination – have been evident in mainstream outlets.
No systematic analysis of gender, race, and campaign media coverage has yet been published on the 2018 election, but those who ran in 2018 have offered interesting and relevant insights to how the media landscape affected candidates in a record-setting year for women. Expressing his frustration in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District primary for the Democratic nomination, candidate Dan Ward told The Washington Post of his female challenger Abigail Spanberger, “She’s had the red carpet laid out for her in the national media…And gender is really the only reason why.” While Ward’s assessment is imbued with its own biases, his perception that national media paid particular attention to women candidates in 2018 is not unfounded. The story of women’s “surge,” particularly as Democratic candidates for Congress, was widely reported in major outlets throughout the election season. From cover stories to front page headlines, attention to the record number of women running for elected office often featured individual candidates and emphasized their origin stories – what motivated them to run in this political moment. That attention could have well benefited many women candidates in increasing name recognition and exposure, but an emphasis on the gender story of the 2018 election does not mean that women candidates were able to cut through that identity-based narrative to advance their campaign message.
Whether beneficial or not, the attention to gender in election 2018 was also evident in newsrooms’ addition of reporters to the gender and politics beat. In 2017, for example, The New York Times hired its first gender editor to ensure that the nation’s leading newspaper applied a gender lens to reporting across beats, including politics. A year earlier, Susan Chira was named senior correspondent and editor on gender issues at the Times, covering gender and intersectional dynamics throughout the 2018 election. VICE News’ Carter Sherman put out a newsletter called “She’s Running” to track women candidates in 2018. Both VICE and The Washington Post also dedicated resources to documenting women’s candidacies in video series. At the Post, a team of women journalists produced “A Year of Women,” a three-part video series on the women making history in the 2018 election, and VICE’s “She’s Running” web series came in four parts.
The diversity of newsrooms, especially at the editorial level, may also influence the ways in which gender and race are covered in political news and the degree to which diverse voices are included in coverage.105 While recent surveys show an increase in racial and gender diversity in newsrooms in the past two decades,106 women – and especially women of color – remain underrepresented across most major news outlets.107
In 2018, a Shorenstein Center analysis of the political press corps across four major news outlets (USA Today, The New York Times, NPR, and The Washington Post) revealed that those covering politics at The New York Times were 90% White and 70% male.108 Likewise, the Women’s Media Center found men wrote more than 60% of print, online, and wire stories on U.S. elections in the fall of 2017.109 A recent analysis of 2020 presidential primary coverage found that this dominance of male writers persists into the next election; according to Storybench, men wrote more than two-thirds of national stories on the campaign in the spring of 2019.
While these analyses showed that some outlets are more gender and race inclusive in who makes up their politics and elections teams, the dominance of White, male voices in political coverage and commentary goes beyond the newsrooms to effect who is cited or featured in news media. CAWP partnered with Gender Avenger and the Women’s Media Center in the 2016 election for Who Talks?, a media tracking project that found men were almost three-quarters of political analysts offering presidential campaign commentary on cable news morning and evening shows from March to November 2016.110 In 2017, a Media Matters study showed that morning news show guests were overwhelmingly White and male, even leading into an historic year for women in politics.111
Just as – or perhaps even more – important as the persistence of gender and/or intersectional bias in political media coverage is the backlash to it. Whether on social media, in competing news outlets, or via organized efforts to combat bias, the public backlash to perceived media bias reflects some progress in creating a media landscape where bias – even if it persists – does not go unanswered.
Northeastern University’s School of Journalism is tracking gender bias in 2020 election coverage at Storybench and on Twitter using the hashtag #2020gendertracker. And organizations committed to gender equality, including CAWP, are working to call out gender bias in media elsewhere. For example, Melinda Gates launched Equality Can’t Wait in the summer of 2019 to inform and inspire public dialogue about gender equality (and the lack thereof) across sectors, including politics. Lean In has also launched an initiative to explore gender bias in elections and call it out using the hashtag #GetOutTheBias.
As consumers navigate an ever-changing landscape for political media, so too do candidates. There are multiple sites to evaluate the influence of potential gender and intersectional biases, as well as to determine whether and where media can combat biases in quantity and/or quality of coverage that have historically hurt women running for office.
Changing the Official Rules of the Game
U.S. electoral rules and processes do little to facilitate women’s electoral advancement or success. Comparative politics scholarship investigates the characteristics of electoral structures that appear best able to facilitate women’s levels of political representation. Among cross-national findings are that women do or may fare better in systems awarding representation by proportion (versus winner-take-all) and in multi-member districts (where voters can select more than one candidate on a ballot).112 Even within the U.S., there is evidence at state and local levels that these types of electoral systems may benefit women and minorities.113 Quotas requiring a specific proportion of women candidates or officeholders have also increased women’s political representation in other countries, but are largely incompatible with candidate-centered U.S. electoral systems.
Most of these rules’ changes would be difficult to implement in the U.S., but there has been some movement on reforming electoral rules within states and localities in recent years. In 2018 specifically, Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting for state and federal primary and general election contests, giving voters the opportunity to rank candidates in order of preference instead of just choosing one. In this system, voters may feel less constrained in choosing the candidate they expect to win as their first choice because their preference for second (or third, etc.) choice will continue to influence outcomes. The number of women in Maine’s state legislature increased from 33.9% in 2018 to 38.2% in 2019, but that rise cannot be attributed directly to ranked-choice voting. In fact, 17 other states saw larger jumps in the percentage of women in their state legislatures from 2018 to 2019, indicating that other factors were at play in increasing women’s political representation.
Two other states – California and Washington – have implemented “top-two” primary election systems in the past decade, whereby partisans compete together and the two highest vote-getters advance to the general election. This permits same-party contests in the general election, raising questions about the role of candidate gender when party is held constant. A new study from Katelyn Stauffer and Colin Fisk uses data from congressional elections in those states between 2012 and 2018 to show that Democratic voters favor women candidates in general election contests against men in the same party, controlling for other factors like incumbency and ideological proximity to the woman candidate.114
These recent and limited cases do not prove that rule changes will always or significantly benefit women candidates. Previous reforms presumed to address gender inequality offer some caution. For example, many assumed that women stood to benefit from state legislatures’ adoption of term limits. However, research analyzing the impact of term limits on women’s representation since 1990 have shown mixed results. Some studies have shown no difference in women’s representational gains between state legislatures with and without term limits,115 and other analyses showed a decrease in women’s representation soon after implementation.116 More recent studies have shown some benefits of term limits, but specifically to Democratic women in states’ upper chambers.117 Perhaps the most important take-away from this research is that determining the impact of electoral reforms on women’s candidacies and representation must be done with attention to both time and related factors (such as building a pool of women to run), and that the effects of these reforms might vary over place and time.
While cases are limited thus far, changing electoral rules in states and cities provide a site for testing hypotheses that advancing representational diversity will take changing both the informal and formal rules of the game.118